Dealing with climate change? Think like an octopus


Octopus in the Palma Aquarium. Photo by Morten Brekkvold/flickr

Oct. 31, 2013

Nature has a lot to offer when dealing with risk, says University of Arizona ecologist Rafe Sagarin

By Douglas Fischer
The Daily Climate

BOZEMAN, Mont. – When it comes to addressing climate change, the octopus can shed a lot of insight on how to handle the issue's unexpected impacts and intractable politics.

Everything we do is about living in a world that's full of risk.
- Rafe Sagarin, University of Arizona

That, at least, is the lesson University of Arizona ecologist Rafe Sagarin draws from his observations of nature: Organisms have lived and thrived on a risk-filled planet for billions of years. They've done so without planning or predictions. Instead, they’ve become adept at adapting. And they're really good at it.

"Everything in nature starts with success," he said. "Adaptability is how all biological organisms have dealt with the fact that they can never eliminate the risks." 

SagarinSagarin was at the Montana State University campus Tuesday for a public lecture hosted by the university's Institute on Ecosystems. He sat with the Daily Climate before his talk and explained how his observations can apply to the climate conundrum.

Sagarin, who is also the program director for the University of Arizona's Biosphere 2 Ocean, has talked before businesses, the military, teachers, government agencies, even the Red Cross on this point. The lessons, he said, apply equally to all facets of our world and work.

"Everything we do, whether we're an (army) base colonel ... or a teacher or a CEO, is about living in a world that's full of risk," he said.

Nature's mechanisms for dealing with that are fairly simple, he added: They're decentralized, they have redundant parts, they form highly symbiotic networks, and they iterate success.

(That latter point is what gets him worked up about much of modern management theory, with its emphasis on learning from mistakes. "To start with failure is totally nonsensical. You don't start with failure. You end with failure.")

'Emergent effects'

Applying this to climate, Sagarin sees success in the "emergent effects" of myriad other actions made in business and by society – decisions that often have nothing to do with climate change but that reduce emissions and carbon footprints anyway.

Southwest Airlines, for instance, didn't set out to be the world's most fuel efficient airline. It focused its corporate energies on rock-bottom ticket prices and quick airplane turnaround at the gate. But those actions, Sagarin said, have the side benefit of reducing the company's fuel use.

Similarly, a new, vertical farm and food-business incubator in Chicago called The Plant didn't set out to reduce the carbon footprint for many businesses and residents of the city. John Edel, the founder, simply wanted a place that could support sustainable food and craft breweries. But by using brewery waste to support a fish farm and adding a bakery that brings in a lunch crowd, the plant has found a sustainable business model that happens to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

UN climate talks

But what about politics: If decentralization is a key part of nature's successful adaptation strategy, what does that say for the massive United Nations climate talks set to resume in Warsaw on Nov. 12?

Sagarin stopped and smiled. He's considered this. 

In an increasingly decentralized world, he said after a pause, "there are still specialized roles for a central power." A centralized power can see the whole; it adds legitimacy; it sets boundaries. 

"Without a framework, without a body, how does the immune system work?"

But gains within the environmental movement and in politics, he noted, have come from leaders – individuals. And a leader has yet to emerge from the global talks.

"The successes, the compelling stories, are usually completely dependent ... on leadership," he said.

Douglas Fischer is editor of the Daily Climate, an independent news service covering energy, the environment and climate change.

Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at]

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